Ga. police beef up sidearms to counter criminals

DeKalb cops go from 9 mm to .40-caliber sidearms

By Megan Matteucci
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

DeKALB, Ga. — Gangs and drug traffickers have ditched their pistols for assault rifles and other military-style firearms, leaving police outgunned.

To beef up its arsenal, the DeKalb County Police Department is trading in its 9 mm handguns for .40-caliber weapons, which are more effective.

Last week, the County Commission approved the purchase of 1,200 Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handguns to replace the force's Berettas.

"A common weapon on the streets is a .40 caliber," acting DeKalb police Chief William O'Brien said. "We're a little behind the times with the 9 mm."

Most officers in the metro area and across the nation carry .40-caliber handguns. Some, like DeKalb, give officers the option to carry higher-powered weapons as long as they are trained.

For O'Brien, the problem was twofold: The department's 9 mm Berettas were more than 20 years old and no longer manufactured.

"We couldn't replace them," he said.

Officers on the streets also found their 9 mm guns could not compete with those in the hands of criminals armed with .40-caliber handguns and assault rifles.

"We got some pretty heinous weapons," DeKalb District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming said. "We're seeing AK-47s, street sweepers, military-style weapons. It's not just your mom's pistol any more."

Last year, the county tested weapons from four manufacturers who submitted bids.

"We brought all of the weapons to the range," O'Brien said. "Officers could go shoot each one and fill out a survey. This model was chosen by the majority of officers."

Commissioner Lee May said he was pleased the decision was made by officers, not the administration.

"They chose what's best for them," he said. "It's about the officers being safe."

The $207,475 contract will pay for 1,200 guns, holsters and magazines to outfit the department.

Atlanta police officers also carry .40-caliber Smith & Wesson guns. The department is considering arming its force with assault rifles but is still doing research on the benefits of the weapons, said Officer Otis Redmond, a police spokesman.

DeKalb's SWAT team, which is armed with MP5 9 mm submachine guns, is usually called out any time officers encounter suspects with high-caliber weapons.

Patrol officers, however, have the option of increasing their firepower.

DeKalb allows an officer to purchase his or her own AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle similar to an M16. The officer can carry it on duty only after passing a specific 40-hour training class and qualifying at the county's range, O'Brien said.

Firearms experts say most law-enforcement agencies across the nation are moving toward the .40 caliber because it can stop a threat more effectively.

"This bullet is slower than the 9 mm but is bigger and has more impact," DeKalb Deputy Chief Diane Loos said.

Bullets expand like an umbrella when they strike tissue. Because the new bullets are larger --- the 9 mm is about a third of an inch in diameter, and the .40-caliber is slightly wider --- they go deeper and cause a larger wound, according to John Finor, first vice president of the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners.

"The .40 will have a much larger projectile," Finor said. "Your chances of stopping an aggressive action or someone who is a threat is much greater."

Finor, who retired from Philadelphia police after 32 years, serves as the firearms examiner for the Montgomery County, Pa., district attorney, testing bullets for about 50 police agencies. Finor said many law-enforcement agencies across the nation began looking at increasing firepower in the late 1990s after Los Angeles police officers were outgunned during a bank robbery and shootout.

"For firepower, we're seeing lots of patrol officers starting to carry AR-15s and other patrol rifles because of the threat of coming in contact with the assault rifle," Finor said. "When you see major cities allowing officers to carry patrol rifles, that speaks volumes about the crime situation."

O'Brien said his officers routinely come in contact with assault rifles and other "serious" weapons.

In September, DeKalb officers arrested a man who had slipped out of handcuffs and stolen a Duluth police cruiser. When apprehended, he was carrying an AR-15 that he had stolen from the Duluth officer, police said.

"The criminal element has more powerful weapons. We want equal firepower. It's just a sign of the time," said Larry Johnson, the DeKalb County Commission's presiding officer. "If it protects one officer, it's a worthy investment."

In 2009, 47 officers were shot and killed in the line of duty in the United States --- a 24 percent increase from the previous year, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund.

In April, three Pittsburgh officers were killed and two wounded after a man armed with an AK-47 opened fire during a standoff.

A month earlier, three officers died in Oakland, Calif., when a suspect opened fire with an assault rifle.

"We've been lucky that we haven't had any casualties, but we want to be prepared," O'Brien said.

Copyright 2010 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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